Howe basketball teams were on a bus to Oklahoma City. COVID-19 then ended season.

Buck Ringgold
Fort Smith Times Record

On the morning of March 12, 2020, the Howe boys basketball team boarded the bus that was going to take them to Oklahoma City and the Class 2A state tournament.

The Lions were making their first state tournament appearance in more than a decade, so spirits were running high.

Shortly afterward, the Howe girls boarded their bus to defend their state title.

They were on their way to watch the boys game, scheduled for that afternoon to tip off the tournament, before preparing to have their opening-round game later that evening.

But something happened along the way, an event that would soon dominate the country for the coming weeks and months. And the epicenter of the intersection between sports and a rapidly growing virus known as COVID-19 took place in Oklahoma City the night before.

Right before the Oklahoma City Thunder was to have tipped off against Utah, one of the star players for the Jazz, Rudy Gobert, tested positive for COVID-19. Shortly afterward, the NBA got involved, deciding to suspend the remainder of the season.

The COVID-19 shutdown in Oklahoma City

A domino effect soon followed next day with sporting events across the country getting shut down.

Meanwhile, while the Lions and Lady Lions were about to reach the city limits of Oklahoma City, they began to hear reports that their state tournaments were in serious jeopardy.

"We were actually at Whataburger in Shawnee when I checked Twitter and seen that someone posted that our game had been postponed and I showed (Howe boys coach Greg Nichols), but we decided to keep driving because we didn’t think they’d seriously cancel the state tournament," guard Brayden Oglesby said. "Then, we stopped at a gas station right outside of Oklahoma City, and all of our phones just blew up and we were in disbelief."

Just like that, the Lions' triumphant return to the state tournament was a brief memory.

"From that moment, I knew the season was over; I didn’t allow myself to get any false hope," Oglesby said.

The Lady Lions were the same reports while riding on their bus.

"I remember hearing the rumors that it was going to get canceled, thinking it would never happen," Makayla Twyman said.

Caitlyn Stacy received a text message from her dad. 

"We had all our ear buds in, trying to focus in on the game and getting ready and stuff; then I got a text from my dad saying he thinks our state tournament would be canceled," Stacy said.

"I took out my ear bud, and that's what (Howe coaches) were talking about."

The Lady Lions had just gotten to Shawnee before hearing the news.

"It was very upsetting for all of us on the bus," Stacy said. "We were excited, focused, ready. ... We stopped (at Shawnee), and some people got in with their parents and we turned the bus around and went home."

Not surprisingly, the mood was drastically different on the ride right back to Howe.

"All the work we had done and how far we have came to just have it gone like that (was crushing)," Twyman said.

At the time, the tournaments weren't canceled, just suspended. But it became official a few weeks later.

Another chance to play in the state tournament

Both the Lions and Lady Lions faced an uncertain future, wondering if they would ever get to play again, much less return to the state tournament.

And it appears they will. Both teams qualified for state tournament and begin their quest this week.

The Lady Lions will have a good chance to defend the title won two years ago, ranked No. 2 in the state.

As for the Lions, they enter the state tournament on the heels of a dramatic buzzer-beating in the area consolation championship.

After receiving a long outlet pass, Ky Lynn streaked down the court and was in position for a layup with time running out.

"I was not able to see the clock; I just knew that I didn't have much time," Lynn said.

But he did, as officials ruled the shot counted as Lynn was quickly mobbed by his teammates.

"I was very happy; I just started jumping up and down," Lynn said. "I was really happy I was able to give the seniors a chance at the state tournament."

Nichols was equally elated , but felt mixed emotions at the same time.

"They're the main attraction, and they got cheated out of playing last year," he said. "I feel really bad for the three seniors that I had last year because they worked extremely hard all year long to reach their goal, which was to play in the state tournament, but it gets shut down.

"I think in the back of their minds (the current players), all year long, they kept thinking something was going to happen. ... But we went ahead and qualified for (state) anyway and I just hope we get to play in it for the kids' sake."

Both teams will be boarding a bus to take them right back to the state tournament with aspirations of completing the job that was interrupted almost a year to the day.

The Lions play Thursday morning at Oklahoma City's State Fair Arena against Cashion, while the Lady Lions go to Noble in the to face LeFlore County rival Pocola.

"For myself, I won’t take anything for granted until we start the game because of what happened last year," Oglesby said.